Saturday, September 5th, 7:00 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Frank Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 120th season of Kansas football begins on Saturday evening, as the 25th-ranked Jayhawks play host to the Bears of Northern Colorado.
Northern Colorado, which plays at the FCS level out of the Big Sky Conference, is coming off a season in which it won just once in 11 games, and this is the third straight year the Bears will have opened the season against a FBS school, losing to Hawaii in 2007 (63-6) and to Purdue last year (42-10).
The Bears are coached by Scott Downing, now in his fourth season at the helm. Downing likes the energy his team has shown leading up to this opener. "It was just the fact that our guys came out and they practiced with a lot of enthusiasm. There was a lot of retention of what we had taught the older guys in the spring. There was just a sense that they understood and they still understand what we're expecting them to do as Northern Colorado football players. I thought the older guys did a great job of setting the tempo for the season, for camp."
This game marks the first-ever meeting between the Bears and Jayhawks on the gridiron, and UNC is 2-9 all-time against teams from the Big 12, with all 11 meetings coming against Colorado.
Kansas went 8-5 (4-4 in conference) in 2008, and the campaign culminated with a victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.
Despite falling short of last season's goals, KU head coach Mark Mangino is optimistic about the future of his program. "We're moving in a positive direction. We're getting better all the time. That's what we've set out to do."
The Jayhawks have won five straight season openers, doing so by an average of 27 ppg. The last three have been even more impressive (35.3 ppg). Kansas has won 17 straight non-conference home games.
Not surprising, a one-win season doesn't yield much in the way of positives. Northern Colorado put up just 20.5 ppg in '08, relying on the pass to do the bulk of its damage. Quarterback Bryan Waggener threw for an average of 231.5 ypg, but his TD-to-INT ratio (14-15) could certainly have been better. WRs Alex Thompson and Brandon Smith are back after combining for 74 receptions, 1,011 yards and seven TDs last season.
Waggener is just 454 passing yards away from 3,000 for his career, and he is just 460 shy of cracking the school's top-10.
The Bears' run game was inconsistent at best last year (118.1 ypg), and DC Wilson is the team's top returning ground gainer after rushing for 375 yards and a TD. One guy to keep an eye on is juco transfer Andre Harris, considered by some to be one of the top RBs to come out of California.
With nearly 400 total yards and 30 points per game allowed, the Bears were behind the eight ball more times than not last season. The pass was the method of attack most teams employed against Northern Colorado, averaging 265.1 ypg and accounting for 20 of the 37 TDs surrendered by the defense.
Max Hewitt is back as the team's top returning tackler (79 tackles, three INTs, one forced fumble), and he will attempt to lead the UNC defense by example. Helping in that regard will be former backup QB James Schrenk who has made the transition to linebacker, as well as DB Stephen Michon (27 tackles in '08).
Despite their troubles last season, the Bears were actually the best team in the Big Sky in terms of red zone defense (.714). That will need to continue this year, particularly in this game against a Kansas offense that can put points on the board in a hurry.
The Kansas offense begins and ends with QB Todd Reesing. The senior signal- caller threw for nearly 3,900 yards and 32 TDs last season, and with the return of WRs Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe, those figures could be even better this time around. Meier hauled in almost 100 balls for 1,045 yards and eight TDs in '08, while Brisco has the size (6-3, 200 pounds) to be a serious deep threat, as well as in the red zone.
Mangino can't say enough about Reesing and the impact he has had on the Jayhawks, both on and off the field. "What Todd has brought to us is stability at that position, and not only stability but excellence. He has gotten better every year because he works at it. He studies tape. He takes his time away from the game field seriously when he's in meeting rooms and when he's on the practice field."
Mangino continued, "He's been able to spark our offense. He's been able to ad lib at times, which is good once in a while. Sometimes he likes to ad lib a lot, and we have to pull him back in. But that's what makes him unique, you know, the idea that he believes in himself and that he can make plays when there's not one. Kind of really reflects his personality; that he always thinks he can overcome."
Senior RB James Sharp is back for another go after rushing for 860 yards and 12 TDs a year ago, and he should once again keep opposing defenses honest as they try to figure out a way to combat both forms of attack.
Like their counterpart in this clash, the Jayhawks had their share of trouble defending the pass last season, ranking 114th nationally with 273.6 ypg allowed. Almost the entire secondary is back and that should help matters, particularly if senior SS Darrell Stuckey is able to duplicate or even improve upon the 98 tackles he logged in '08. Corner Justin Thornton is another guy the coaches expect to continue his development as he has seven career INTs.
Up front, junior DE Jake Laptad is hoping to put even more pressure on the quarterback after posting seven sacks a year ago, and help in stuffing the run will come from a pair of returning starters in DTs Caleb Blakesley and Jamal Greene.
As Reesing goes, so will the Jayhawks. Northern Colorado is no match for Kansas in this game and it won't take long for the home team to take control. The rest of the schedule offers more than its share of pitfalls, but KU will win this one with relative ease.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Kansas 56, Northern Colorado 10
09/02 10:49:50 ET